WINNIPEG – Blake Wheeler gave a glimpse of what is under the hood, but wasn’t quite ready to provide the full diagnosis of what was going to need to be done to complete the repair.
As the Winnipeg Jets were officially eliminated from Stanley Cup playoff contention, Wheeler took on a reflective tone as he spoke with reporters for nearly 10 minutes on Thursday morning and ultimately fell on his sword when asked to delve into the topic of what has become another lost season for the franchise.
“Well, I think I would have to take responsibility for that. It’s been my job to build the culture here and I’ve taken a lot of pride in that over the years,” said Wheeler. “I certainly look in the mirror on that one, and where we’ve gotten to, the team that we were and the team that we are now – I don’t hide from that at all. I certainly take the responsibility for where this team sits.
"Hopefully, we have a locker room full of guys doing the same thing. Like I said, I’ve tried to build this into something we can be proud of, something that can be a championship level every year. And when you fall short of that you’ve got to take responsibility for it.”
The conversation could have gone one of two ways and it was impossible to know which way it was going to go until Wheeler began to answer the first question sent his way.
In his role of captain – the job he’s held since Aug. 31, 2016 – Wheeler has often bounced back and forth between insightful and downright prickly.
Sometimes he’s been an open book, sometimes he speaks in code and sometimes he’s simply not interested in going down a particular road.
That’s part of Wheeler’s complexity.
He can show emotion and wear his heart on his sleeve, but there are other times when he comes off as distant or forlorn.
One thing you can’t question is whether or not he cares.
“I hate what’s going on right now. I hate losing,” said Wheeler. “That’s not just me, we have a lot of guys who don’t like losing and don’t like the results that we’re getting. Try to win, that’s it. Win the game tonight and get some sort of good feeling back in our room so, like I said, go home and end on the right note.”
Although he hasn’t spoken at the podium nearly as often as he has in seasons past, there are times like Thursday when his words are spot on.
Wheeler has a good handle on the situation, even if the wound is too fresh for him to offer up a one-stop-shop solution.
“You know what, it’s probably nothing that I care to share publicly. I think the offseason will be critical to having some conversations and travelling down that road,” said Wheeler. “My feelings are potentially a little bit raw right now. Maybe not that well thought out. Just going in a public forum and exposing that to the world, I don’t think is necessarily fair right now. I think it’s something that’s going to take some thought and some deliberation and coming up with the answer. My view may not be even correct, it may not fit with what the organization thinks or what the team thinks.
“Certainly there are steps that need to be taken and some things that we can improve on. Otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting where we are.”
Where the Jets are sitting is on the outside looking in.
With just four home games left to play after Thursday’s road finale against the Carolina Hurricanes, not only did the Jets fail to return to contender status, they’ll miss the playoffs for the seventh time in 11 seasons since the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
When it comes to the topic of expectations, Wheeler cautioned the masses about the hype machine on the first day of training camp and he referenced that exchange once again.
“I said it before the year, be careful of what the word 'expectations' means,” said Wheeler. “There have been years in the past where the expectations were really low and we had really good teams and were competing for championships. This year, it seemed like expectations were high and we’ve obviously fallen well short of those.
“This is the best part of the year to be a hockey player, except when you’re in our shoes, then it’s the worst. It’s really disappointing. It’s hard to put into words, the feeling and, you know, what it feels like. It just feels like we’re back to square one. We built so long to get to a championship level and sitting here is pretty deflating.”
So, how do the Jets ensure this is just a blip on the radar and not the beginning of a long and arduous rebuild?
“Well, I think that’s the idea, to regain the form that we had that made us a contender,” said Wheeler. “I don’t think it’s a matter of snapping your fingers. In large part, we have a group of really good hockey players. Just how do you fit that into a good team? That’s our job.”
It’s natural for frustration to seep into the conversation when things don’t go well for a team, and while much has been made about the fact several players have expressed concerns of late, it says here that’s an important part of the process for the Jets.
You can’t fix a problem before you acknowledge there is one.
Rather than come unglued and point fingers, many members of the Jets leadership group have simply made it clear that the status quo isn’t good enough.
Wheeler joined the chorus and it was important for him to do so.
Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry echoed many of Wheeler’s comments, but tried to paint a picture that wasn’t quite as dire.
“We’re extremely disappointed. This team had a goal and that was to compete for the Stanley Cup. When you fall short, obviously there is disappointment,” said Lowry. “I believe we have a lot of very good pieces. I wouldn’t say we’re back to square one. Obviously, you’d like to think it’s an anomaly, a one-off, and this team will be back next year competing for the Stanley Cup.
“There are a lot of things that factored in. We’re not going to sit here and make excuses, but we have a lot of key pieces that can win hockey games.”
Finding a way to augment those key pieces is a critical component for the Jets as they look to expedite the process of putting this disappointing season behind him.